Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Bible and the Church are Not Political Props


He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”

It is tricky for a bishop to wade too deeply into political waters. This is not because the Bible and Christianity have nothing to say about things usually considered political. They clearly do – care for the poor and vulnerable, peace-making, reconciliation, justice, the cherishing of life and its flourishing, and more are key themes of the Bible. Each has political implications. In the Episcopal Church we regularly pray “for those who work for justice, freedom, and peace”. In Morning Prayer, we pray
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
These prayers also have political implications.

But Christians of good faith can and do come to different conclusions as to what laws, policies, and programs will help us achieve the goals toward which our sacred scriptures and our prayers point. Members of my diocese reflect these different conclusions. In truth, the language of Christian faith does not translate neatly into loyalty to any one party or leader. For my part, I have voted over the years for politicians from different parties with varying degrees of reservation. Once, my reservations came to a head and I concluded that a president I had voted for should resign after betraying the trust placed in him by the American public.

As a bishop, I try to be at least somewhat circumspect about venturing too far onto political territory. But yesterday the President of the United States crossed a line and ventured into church territory. He used the Bible and an Episcopal Church as political props. And, in order for him to do so, police under federal command, used flash-bang shells, tears gas, and rubber bullets to disperse a gathering of peaceful demonstrators from the street and the churchyard – a half-hour before a 7 p.m. curfew went into effect. Among those forcibly dispersed were clergy on their church’s property. This was an appalling abuse of power and contrary to the very sacred scriptures the president raised awkwardly in the air.

It was wrong on many levels. He used violence against people exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest a grave injustice. He did so for the sake of a staged photo-op in front of a building dedicated to the Prince of Peace. He held up the Holy Bible as a political prop. The Bible is the word of God, which bears witness to the Word made flesh who dwelt among us in our pain and need, who brought mercy, compassion, forgiveness for sinners, and hope for the downtrodden.

The president would, of course, be welcome to attend any Episcopal Church for worship or Bible study. He would be welcome to learn, as we all need to,  more about the Word made flesh who taught us to love one another – including our enemies – and suffered on our behalf and died for our sins.

Presidents and politicians, conservative and liberal, often invoke faith in one way or another, some more credibly, some less so. Some have been known to be church-attending men of prayer and faith, others less so. But, yesterday the president did not offer a prayer or appeal to the language of hope and faith. Instead, he spoke of domination, forced fellow citizens out of the way. and then stood silently using a church and the Bible as political props. Under the circumstances, this was blasphemous.

Our nation is hurting. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have died so far from a pandemic that has disrupted the lives of all of us. We have seen outrageous and fatal actions aimed at our African-American brothers and sisters – a different kind of blasphemy. There is understandable outrage and protest. The excesses and opportunistic abuses of that protest need to be curtailed. Peaceful protest should be encouraged even as violent protest is opposed. But, we need leaders who can speak with empathy, compassion, understanding, and tenderness to the hurt and anger. We need leaders who can find the words and actions that might bring us together. It grieves me that our president used the symbols of faith for a photo op rather speaking from the heart the language of faith to encourage healing, reconciliation, and hope.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Justice, Wild Justice, and the Plague of Racism


I am tired and my heart hurts. I am tired of dealing with Covid-19 and find the prospect that we will be dealing with it one way or another for some months to come more than a little daunting. And while we have been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been made painfully aware again of another plague that has long infested America, the plague of racism. Many of us have been appalled recently by the images of the killing of jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, in Georgia, the bigoted calling of the police on birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, in New York, and the slow suffocation of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police. Each story is heartbreaking. And my heart hurts.

Whatever progress we have made in race relations, and things are better than they once were, there is no denying that we have a long way to go. One does not need to hear very many stories from African-Americans to understand this. And one can understand the anger we have seen manifested in recent days. The accumulation of stories like those above along with the heaviness we all feel living with Covid-19 which we know has disproportionately affected African-Americans along with the day to day experience of racism that so many of our fellow citizens experience has taken a toll. The fact that every other means of protest by African-Americans over the last several years has been dismissed as offensive and out of bounds only adds to the accumulated frustration. We are seeing all of that boil over across the country.

I do not condone rioting, still less, looting. I am pretty nearly a pacifist because I believe Jesus calls us to prioritize non-violence in anticipation of the kingdom of God. But I have been reminded of something one of my favorite authors, Charles Williams wrote. Williams, in ‘The Forgiveness of Sins,’ referred to the "wild justice of revenge" that breaks out if civil justice is not enacted. That does not excuse things like rioting – as opposed to protesting – but I wonder if it might not express a basic law of social interaction. In the absence of civic and economic justice, the opportunity to access the basic goods of life; 'wild justice' is likely to break out – like a wildfire. 

Once it breaks out, wild justice is not altogether tidy, rational, or controlled. People will do things that are even contrary to their own well-being. And some will take the opportunity to do things like looting. Wild justice is not actual justice; it is a cry for actual justice. It is a reaction when actual justice is not enacted  in the social order by  more “normal” means. Again, this neither condones nor excuses the destruction. But I contend that we must pay attention to the source of the rage which the riots express. The outrage is real and justified. Those of us who are white do not always like to look at the continuing legacy of racism. But, I agree with Charles Williams, “We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, [those we have treated unjustly] desire to repay with their wild justice . . .” 

Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar point in response to riots in a speech just a few weeks before his assassination.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

So where do we go from here? Let's pursue actual justice. Not only to prevent the outbreak of wild justice but because we desire justice – justice for all. Because we believe God desires justice. Because when we pray,"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven," we mean it. In particular, we need to acknowledge that the plague of racism and the idea of white supremacy means that African-Americans are often not treated fairly in our legal system. Inherent bias continues to limit the opportunities of our fellow citizens. Our brothers and sisters of color too often are not treated with basic respect for their dignity as human beings. We shall all be unfortunate if we who are not African -American do not pay attention to these injustices and seek to redress them.

One thing we can do is listen to African-Americans commenting on our contemporary situation. Here are two examples:





We can do our homework so that those of us who are not African-American can understand better the experience and the legacy of racism and white supremacy. You might start with either Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson or 'I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness' by Austin Channing Brown. If you prefer reading novels, you might start with one of these:

'I Know Why the Caged bird Sings' by Maya Angelou
'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead

A longer list  of books on racism can be found hereAn Antiracist Reading List

And if you are looking for more concrete things to do, check out these lists: 


You might see if members of your church want to engage in conversation on the topic using a series like Sacred Ground.

You might also pray. Pray for justice and pray for the grace to have your life rhyme with your prayer. I am going to pray this Great Litany Novena for the first nine days of Pentecost which starts tomorrow. And I will continue praying for justice and reconciliation and peace.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic: Review and Explanation


Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Review and Explanation

There are many concerns involved in responding to Covid-19 – public health, economic and personal financial health, emotional and spiritual health under “lock down,” and government’s competency in balancing the other three vs. potential governmental overreach. This is not the place to discuss where there has been governmental competence vs incompetence vs overreach. But I will address how we as a diocese and, more specifically, I as the bishop, have sought to address the church’s response to the pandemic.

Our response to the virus is only partly informed by what the government has directed. We began responding to Covid-19 well before any directives from the state government. As early as March 5, I gave directions for ‘Communion and the Coronavirus’. Our congregations met under those guidelines for two Sundays, including March 15, which was after both the Governor of Wisconsin and the President of the United States had declared states of emergency and one Sunday more than some neighboring church bodies. But it was clear by then, that a different kind of care was going to be needed if we were going to mitigate the spread of the virus and help keep our members and neighbors safe.

I formed the Covid-19 Task Force in the week before March 15 and began meeting with them to discern the most faithful and responsible way forward. On March 16, in response to directions “from the CDC and the White House” I suspended in-person worship in our church buildings. This was before Governor Evers’ March 26 ‘Safer at Home’ order. It is actually stricter on some points than what the governor directed. That has been the status quo for the diocese since and remains so at this point except for the recent allowance for more congregations to celebrate Eucharist under clear and strict guidelines. While that allowance goes further than any Episcopal diocese around us, it is still stricter in terms of how many may participate than the governor’s order allowed.

[The various statements from the diocesan office mentioned above can be found at https://www.diofdl.org/covid-resources.html]

I review all this to point out that decisions regarding worship in the Diocese of Fond du Lac have only partially been in response to what the government at any level has told us we should or should not do. Rather those decisions have been based on public health information from experts, including those on our own Task Force. They have been based taking the pandemic seriously and, given that, on our equally serious determination to love one another and love our neighbors.

We are enjoined in Romans 13:1-2 to,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”

While we generally submit to the governing authorities and are suspicious of calls to resist those authorities unless they contravene a gospel imperative, the Church’s ultimate authority is not what any earthly government – whether local, state, or federal – says. Or, for that matter, any of the various interpretations of the Constitution. Nor is our ultimate allegiance and loyalty to any of those. Ultimately,

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

And we seek a better country, the City, the New Jerusalem God has prepared for us:

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

We put our hope in no governor or president or nation for, as the New Testament declares, ‘Jesus is Lord’.

Jesus is our authority and it is his directives we are trying to follow. His commandment is that we love one another as he loved us (John 13:34) and he promises to free us to do so. Thus, our most fundamental right and freedom is to love God and love our neighbor. So, we seek to, “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). And it is that direction we are seeking to follow in our decisions regarding whether, when, and how to open our church buildings. Based on the best knowledge to which we have access regarding the threat of Covid-19 and given our determination to follow Jesus’ directive to love one another and our neighbors, what is the most faithful, most responsible thing for us to do? It is with that question we are grappling. Whatever we do will based not on fear, but on care.

Believe me, I wish as much as anyone we could just simply go back to worshiping together in our
church buildings. We have beautiful church buildings that evoke wonder and a sense of the holy. They are soaked with decades of prayer and memory. It is right for us to miss them. Even more, it is right that we miss gathering. And I miss regular worship together in the presence of the gathered body of Christ. At the end of every Eucharist with the dismissal we disperse our members so we can be the body of Christ in the world. But we are meant to be ‘re-membered’ week by week. This long, enforced dispersal is not natural. I do not just not like it; I think it is problematic. I want us to resume gathering as the body of Christ in worship because it a fundamental vocation of the Church.

But it is not clear that it is safe to do so at this point. The state supreme court’s ruling expressly did not deny the ongoing seriousness of the virus. Even with masks, physical distancing, and other precautions, it is our understanding from public health experts that the length of time shared in the same space, breathing the same air, makes worshiping in groups too unsafe. I appreciate that many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus in order to participate in worship in your church building. I would be willing to take that risk as well. If it was just about me. But I do not want to risk giving the virus to someone else if I am infected unknowingly. I do not think you do either. That is why we are being extra careful. We will continue to make our decisions based on the best medical and public health information we can glean as we seek how best to go forward faithfully.

We will begin a phased resumption of gathering for worship in our buildings, possibly as early as the middle of June. But that will largely be determined by the rate of infection and other public health factors. Directions for the first phase of regathering in our church buildings will be published next week.

There is a lot of talk now about the Church being essential. I absolutely believe it is. It is important to note that while we have not been going to our church buildings, we have not ceased to be the Church. We have found creative, faithful ways to worship and pray and connect with one another and serve and bear witness in spite of the constraints imposed upon us by the pandemic. In that sense, we, as the Church, have continued the free exercise of religion as per the First Amendment.

I ask your patience and forbearance as we discern the next steps. And I ask your prayers for me, the Task Force, our clergy, lay leaders, and all members of the Diocese of Fond du Lac. It is my firm conviction that God is faithful and will see us through this challenging time. And God continues to lavish grace upon us even now.

Under the Mercy,

Bishop Matt

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

First Goat, a Fable


This is the story of First Goat. First Goat lived long ago in the before the before time. He lived there, just north of south and little east of west, with all the other first animals. There were First Dog, First Horse, First Elephant, First Chicken, and all the others. And they all got along. First Rabbit would go for walks with First Fox without any worries because First Rabbit knew that First Fox had a taste for broccoli and not rabbit stew. Even First Mosquito preferred fruit juice.

The world was new. It was so new not everything had happened yet. And not everything that had happened had happened completely. Things had not yet stuck in their final place. Sometimes the grass would start out green in the morning but turn to purple around noon. It usually turned green again before night – but even night sometimes came early and sometimes came late. Sometimes the sun rose in the east, but sometimes it rose in the north. Things were still new. They had not stuck.

Some things were so new they had not happened yet at all. One day, the first rain fell. This surprised the first animals. But they found it refreshing. They were dry, dusty, and dirty. They needed the first bath. As the rain fell on their noses and on their tongues, they became thirsty. The first puddle formed. The animals gathered around it. First Goat was surprised to see the reflection of the beautiful blue sky in the water. The reflection was so clear, the puddle seemed to contain the whole sky.

Suddenly, First Goat remembered his thirst. Afraid the other animals might drink before he did, he
pushed them out of the way, butting and kicking. He began to gulp furiously. But remember – everything had not yet stuck. Would you believe First Goat gulped so fast and so hard that the sky’s reflection came unstuck he drank it up right off the puddle? And now First Goat was full of the reflection of the sky.

With the sky in his belly, First Goat became very, very, very hungry. He began to eat and eat and eat. But he could not get full. After all, how can you fill the sky? He ate grass, he ate bark, he even ate bugs – but you can’t fill the sky with grass and bark and bugs. He even ate the wrapper of the first Twinkie – left on the ground by First Litterbug.

No matter what he ate, nothing could fill the emptiness. He tried distracting himself by singing and dancing and playing games with the other animals. But he was still hungry and the empty sky inside would rumble and thunder. He tried to keep busy. He worked harder and longer. He built the first patio. Still he was hungry. He still contained the empty reflection of the sky.

And so have been all the goats that have come after First Goat. They still eat anything and everything. They still make noise all the time and keep moving, trying to satisfy the empty sky inside.

Humans are like First Goat. We experience a great emptiness, emptiness as big as the sky. We are full of the reflection, not of the sky, but of God. We are hungry – hungry for God. Like First Goat, we sometimes try desperately to fill that hunger with everything but God. We buy more and more stuff. We try to lose ourselves in work. We try to distract ourselves with play and entertainment. We move from place to place and from relationship to relationship. But we remain empty and restless.

As St. Augustine said, we are made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Our hearts are empty until they are filled with God. Try as we might to fill it with activity, things, or people, only God can fill our infinite emptiness. Activity, things, and people can distract us, can even numb us enough to forget the deep emptiness inside for a while. But they cannot fill us. They cannot satisfy. God created us for himself and God alone can satisfy us.

- The End -

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Thoughts on the Feast of the Confession of Peter

Window from St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ripon, Wisconsin

Today (January 18) we celebrate that Peter confessed Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). But we know that, for all that Peter got right in that declaration, he fundamentally misunderstood what it meant. Just a little later, after Jesus declares that "he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21), Peter rebukes him Jesus saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you" (Matthew 16:22) To which Jesus famously responds with his own rebuke, "Get behind me Satan!" (Matthew 16:23)

Peter had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah. But he believed that that meant Jesus had come to kick butt politically. He was supposed to be like King David beating up on the Philistines or like King Cyrus beating up on the Babylonians. Peter wanted the Messiah to be a divinely appointed bully to out-bully those he believed were bullying the people of God. He wanted a Lion of Judah. But he got the Lamb of God who came to undergo great suffering and be killed.

What Peter got was a Messiah committed to extravagant mercy. What he got was a Messiah who blessed not those with wealth and power, but the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those willing to be persecuted for the sake righteousness/justice.  What he got was a Messiah who rejected vengeance and insisted that enemies (yes, even those enemies) must be prayed for and forgiven. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that turning the other cheek was an essential discipline of his faithful followers. What he got was a Messiah who warned that we will be judged based on how we talk about and treat others, on our caring for the least of these, on our clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, etc. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that life was not about winning, but, humility, self-sacrifice, and service. Indeed, it was about denying the self, taking up the cross and dying in order to truly live.

By the end, Peter came to understand. But not before notoriously denying Jesus. When the crisis came, the one who had made the solid rock confession, crumbled and admitted, "I do not know the man" (Matthew 26:72). Though that was partly to save his own butt – the butt Jesus would not save by kicking other butts – it was also one of the truest things Peter ever said. On a deep level, he still did not know Jesus or what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.

Like Peter, Christians through the ages have confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But also, like Peter, Christians have been tempted to believe they know better than Jesus what that meant. Christians have been happy to affirm that Jesus is the Way, but less willing to follow in the Way Jesus is. We are still tempted to remake the Lamb of God into some Lion of Judah. We are tempted to look for a political King David or a worldly King Cyrus to deliver us from our enemies. But that is not the kind of Messiah Jesus is. Do we want to know him? Do we want to confess Jesus as the Messiah he is? Or do we want risk hearing the words with which Jesus rebuked Peter shortly after his confession?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Does it Feel Like Christmas?

Light of the World by Mark Missman
As I was preparing my Christmas sermon, I am reminded of a personal test of authenticity for things I read that occurred to me while I was in seminary. If, while I am reading (or listening to) something, I sense Christmas in it, that is a sign that the author/speaker is on to something. I think I first became aware of this when, while reading first volume of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, I suddenly felt the thrill I feel when hearing Christmas horns, bells, or carols. I know it sounds trite and potentially sentimental. It is certainly idiosyncratic. But when I sense Christmas in something I know it is tapping into deep truth. And it is not always something as heavy as a profound work of theology. It comes, as Christmas does, in simpler things. Here is what I think it is about.

In the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke along with the first chapter of John, there is a vision of God that is at once expansive and intimate. It is also full of hope and promise – expectancy. There is the intimacy of the holy family huddled in the stable coping with a newborn but without the usual resources of home and extended family. On top of that they will have to flee for their lives and become refugees before it is all over. There are the down and out shepherds working the night shift doing work no one else wanted to do. There are the Magi, foreigners, strangers in a strange land, eccentrics following a star and a rumor of glory. Yet the God of the universe is intimately engaged in this homely setting. And more, this cast of outcasts is caught up in the great expectation of God’s extravagant promise to bless the nations and resolve the enmity between humans and God and humans and each other. It reaches a crescendo when the shepherds are bathed in the glory of the Lord and the angel announces extravagant good news that a savior is born. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

There is fear and awe, but there is also the thrill of hope and possibility, of a great promise about to be fulfilled. The story contains all the darkness of oppression, violence, poverty, and displacement – both spiritual and physical. But in this small vulnerable baby the Love that moves the sun and all stars, the fire in the equation, has taken on human flesh with all its vulnerabilities – God with us. That Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. O little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!

This is a God who is intimate, a God who is both immanent and transcendent, a God who dares to show up as a vulnerable baby, a God who makes good on his promises, a God who delivers. Of course, the real heart and climax of the story comes on Easter. But, the Christmas story summarizes the good news of which Crucifixion and Resurrection are the exclamation point.

It does not matter what time of year it is. If, when I am reading theology or hearing a sermon or even reading a novel, I sense echoes of such joy and hope, if I catch a glimpse of this God, I take notice. When I don’t sense such echoes – when I don’t feel Christmas – I also take note. Some theologians, authors, and preachers suck Christmas right out of the room. Others can evoke it without trying or even intending to. Those are the ones I pay attention to.

I first made the connection reading Barth, but it is certainly also true of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Frederick Buechner, Rowan Williams, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Dante, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, and many others.

Have you ever felt that thrill of Christmas while reading or hearing someone?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why We Tithe


Since early in our marriage my wife, Leslie, and I have given away 10% and sometimes more of our income. That is a significant amount. It has not always been easy. It has meant sacrifices. But, over the years it has become such a part of our routine that, while there are certainly things we cannot do or buy that we might otherwise be able to, it has become as natural as paying the water bill.

Why do we do it? First of all, because we believe the story of Jesus Christ as understood in the Christian Tradition is the most beautiful and most true story there is. In Jesus “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7-8). Experiencing some of that lavish grace has evoked in us a desire to respond to his generosity with our own. God is generous. In giving, we tune our hearts to the Generosity at the heart of all things.

We want to sink our hearts into the heart of God. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21). Our giving has a sacramental quality as an outward and visible sign of the commitment of our hearts.

It is also a simple matter of obedience. Jesus tells us to give. So we give. Doing things out of a sense of duty is not a popular reason for doing things. But, we accept that it is our duty to be “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God” (Episcopal Church Canon I.17.3). We believe the Church to be the body of Christ and the essential, if demonstrably imperfect, anticipation and witness to the kingdom of God. Therefore, we give to support the Church and its mission. Since I became bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, that giving has been mostly divided between the several congregations of the diocese.

We also take seriously the biblical mandate, reinforced by Jesus, to care for the poor and those in need. In one of his parables, Jesus suggests that we should “make friends for ourselves” by giving to the poor who will then welcome us into heaven (Luke 16:1-15). In another, he warns us against the ignoring the desperate and destitute at our gate (Luke 16:19-31). Our Lord’s brother, James, asserts that true faith means to “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In Ephesians 4:28, we are charged to “labor and work honestly with our own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” as if that was the main reason for working.

Further, Jesus warns that we will be judged based on our care for those in need (Matthew 25:31-46). They are the sacramental presence of Jesus himself. As Pope Leo the Great (400-461) pointed out, “rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself” (Sermon 9.III).

So, we give to aid the poor and those in need. Some of the 10% Leslie and I give to the churches of the diocese goes to that purpose through things like local food programs and other ministries. Beyond that, we give directly to organizations and entities that assist those in need.

Another reason we give is that the New Testament and the Christian Tradition clearly teach that money and wealth are spiritually dangerous. The more one has the more dangerous it becomes. It is not neutral. It is seductive. It creates a sort of spiritual static. It is not for nothing that Jesus says it is easier for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to make it into heaven. He refers to wealth as adikias which means unrighteous. In Luke 16:15, he refers to the pursuit of wealth as an abomination (which is what the Greek word, bdelugma, means). Jesus also warns, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). Further, 1 Timothy 6:10 famously asserts that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” In two places – Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 – greed (the love and accumulation of wealth and the things that go with it) is referred to as idolatry. Remember that Jesus warned against the worship of Mammon  (Matthew 6:24 & Luke 16:9). By any measure, my wife and I are among the wealthy. So, we take these warning to heart,

We will be judged based on our care for those in need. We will also be judged based on our idolatry. The only way I can be sure I do not worship Mammon/Wealth is by giving as much away as I dare. And maybe dare a little more.

Giving a significant amount also helps us to cultivate a spirit of detachment enabling us to hold things lightly. A common theme in the Bible and throughout the Christian Tradition is that accumulation and attachment to things gets in the way of spiritual growth, i.e., the love of God and love of neighbor. And so, the disciplines of detachment and simplicity are commended. The more we have, the more we put our trust in what we have rather than in God. As John Wesley said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for those that have riches not to trust in them" (On Riches). The stuff of this world is good and it is not a sin to possess enough with which to live. We read in 1 Timothy 4:4-5) that, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” But, when we possess much it starts to possess us. It warps the way relate to God and others. And so we give.

Why 10 %? In the Old Testament Law an offering of 10% was a specific requirement in some contexts, e.g., Leviticus 27:32 and Numbers 18:26-32. In 1982 the Episcopal Church affirmed the tithe “as the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians”. This was reaffirmed by General Convention as recently as 2009. The key word there is “minimum”.

The truth is Jesus asks for more, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). While it is true that not all of his followers go all that way even in the Gospels, still Jesus particularly commends those who give everything to follow him. This was picked up in the early Church as for example when St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200) wrote,
And instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XIII, paragraph 3

And Pope Gregory the Great (540-604):
Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away.

The wealth we have is not our own. It belongs to God and, under God, to those in need. The real question is not how much we give and to what and why? The real question is how much we keep for ourselves for what and why? 

To be honest, we have not gone that far. We do not give as much as we could. We still own a house, cars, and much else. And, to be honest, I do not believe that faithfulness requires that we impoverish ourselves completely. Still, the words of Jesus remain a challenge to us.

We do not give out of a sense of guilt. We thank God for the grace we have received but we do not want to "sin that grace may abound". We rejoice in our freedom in Christ but do not want to be in bondage to anything (1 Corinthians 6:12), including money, wealth, and things.. And so, we give. We also do not give because we think God will bless us with more wealth if we give. That kind of transactional “Prosperity Gospel” is contrary to the way of Jesus. We give because we love Jesus. We give because we love his Church, the body of Christ. We give because we want to love those he loves  the poor and vulnerable. Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Giving is how we do that.

Some Qualifiers

Giving 10% + is what we believe we are called to do and it is significant enough for us to feel it. It is also the case that, together, my wife and I make a decent income. We are still able to live pretty comfortably. We could give more. I also want to acknowledge that my compensation includes insurance and a generous pension. So, those are two things we do not have to worry about as much as some others. And to be perfectly transparent, we tithe on our take-home salary, not our total compensation package which includes those benefits. Not yet anyway. Aside from our mortgage, car payments, and some minimal student debt, we are comparatively debt free. We recognize that that is not everyone's situation. It is also important to note that we are both on the same page when it comes to this commitment. If you are married, and you and your spouse are not on the same page, that changes things. It would not be good for this to become a source of contention in a marriage. But, perhaps careful and prayerful conversation.

I recognize that others’ situation might well be different and giving 10%, even in the restricted sense that we do might not be feasible. So, maybe you aren’t prepared or able, at least at this point, to meet “the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians.” That is OK. After all we are told, “it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (1 Corinthians 8:12-15). But, I am also confident than many could give closer to 10% and nearly everyone can give more than they are currently.

I do encourage you to start somewhere. There is nothing magic about 10%. But, if not 10%, what percentage? It is good to think in terms of a percentage and to set a goal rather lest our giving be ad hoc and haphazard. Not giving  is not an option for faithful Christians who “know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). So, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” Hebrews 13:16).

Here is a helpful rule of thumb from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

See also:

Money: Intoxicant or Eucharist? (On Camels and Needle Eyes)